The fact that the occupation of the Taiwan legislature by student activists earlier this spring was woefully under-reported, is disappointing for a number of reasons. Primarily, the world missed an opportunity to see the changes in social and political identities sweeping across the island nation. These generational changes that are taking place in Taiwan, along with external factors such as China’s treatment of Hong Kong and its increasing bellicosity in its littoral areas, are going to reshape local politics in a way that suggests in the not-too-distant future, there is going to be a powerful new impetus for independence in Taiwan.
Although many polls show the majority of Taiwanese support independence, the young are different. They overwhelmingly see themselves as Taiwanese and do not identify with China at all. The Taiwan Brain Trust found that 97% of the 20-29 age bracket identify themselves as Taiwanese, a number corroborated by unpublished academic survey work the authors have access to.
This Taiwanese identity is unlike that of its forbearers. The young lack the hatred over the political killings, and colonial economic exploitation by the KMT authoritarian regime that drove their grandparents’ generation. Nor are they politically timid and quiet like their parents. Their identity, still being fleshed out, is inclusive, absorbing KMT imagery, such as the ROC flag, but assigning new home-grown meanings to it. It includes the KMT as a political party but rejects all of its China-related territorial and cultural claims. At the heart of this identity, as the Sunflower Movement shows, is an immense reverence for Taiwan’s democracy, with which they grew up.
This rising generation, now entering low-level positions in government and industry, is further different from its forefathers in two key ways. Born after martial law, it has only ever known democracy, and it has never known a booming economy. Instead, it confronts bleak economic prospects – enormous regional economic disparities, stagnant incomes, rising housing prices, shrinking employment prospects, and growing long-term income inequality. This generation sees these negative economic trends as ultimately linked to China’s growing ascendancy over Taiwan’s economy, an ascendance that the KMT is attempting to increase via recent trade deals. In many nations, regional economic issues drive independence activism. Similarly, expect this generation to be out on the streets, and often, in the coming years.
Second, while much academic and media writing has focused on generational change within the Democratic Progressive Party, traditionally the standard-bearer of Taiwan independence, substantially less attention has been paid to the corresponding changes within the KMT. The current President, Ma Ying-jeou, will in all likelihood be the last KMT president born on Chinese soil. Even more importantly, the traditional trajectory among the KMT leadership is where the grandfather came over from China, the son had a career in the military, the bureaucracy, or politics, and the grandchildren become citizens of another country, typically the US. Ma Ying-jeou himself exemplifies this: his father was a KMT bureaucrat , but his daughters are American citizens. Thus, the third generation of the mainlander core that has always run the KMT is shrinking, either absorbed into the greater Taiwan identity, or quietly emigrating. One way or another, the KMT is changing.
In turn, this will reshape the relationship between the mainlander core, and the local Taiwanese factions that the KMT uses to maintain local dominance, likely forcing the KMT to loosen its longstanding rule of never permitting local factions to form cross-regional or national level alliances (this occurred once before at the end of the 1980s). The local factions pay lip service to the KMT’s quasi-religious pro-China identity, but they are more interested in securing flows of political patronage and funding from the central government, than making macho about owning the South China Sea. Further, at some point the KMT will be forced to rebrand its political ideology to make it more Taiwan-centric if it is to remain a viable national party, as longtime Taiwan scholar Don Rogers recently observed. The Sunflower Movement took at stab at the weak underbelly of the party: its overemphasis on tying Taiwan’s economic future to a single country, a country that makes no bones about wanting to annex Taiwan. Thus, as the KMT changes, its will and ability to impede independence sentiment will probably diminish.
The third factor in Taiwan’s future independence surge is China’s growing power. An expansionist state with a rapidly expanding military and territorial claims on most of its neighbors, China is dangerously careering towards war, and very likely against a coalition of states. It is almost axiomatic that as relations between Beijing and the US and its ally Tokyo deteriorate, both those nations will move closer to Taiwan. Few nations, however large their military might, have defeated coalitions in wars, and a common result for the loser is that its ruling clique is cast from power. Backed by the US and Japan, both powerful states that have strategic and security interests at stake in continuing to see a Taiwan free from PRC jurisdiction, this generation of Taiwanese may well have a window of opportunity to gain formal independence under circumstances that, ironically, will likely be set in motion by the PRC–perhaps even by an attempt to take Taiwan.
The ROC government frequently claims that Taiwan is already independent as the ROC and that there is no need for “independence.” However, this de facto independence satisfies neither the national psyche nor the needs of the people of Taiwan, who languish under Beijing’s constraint of their international space. Beijing’s recent treatment of Hong Kong has been a strong signal to the Taiwanese of what awaits them post-annexation. With formal independence offering the Taiwanese the ability to satisfy all of Taiwan’s trade and identity issues, look forward to that coming independence surge in Taiwan.
(Feature photo of protesters gathering outside Taiwan’s parliament close to daybreak on March 19th, on the first night of the Sunflower Movement, by Alysa Chiu)